In New York at the turn of the century, Robert Henri emerged as an artist working in the realist tradition, combining immediacy of expression with subjects from everyday life. He had arrived at realism through the influence of Thomas Eakins and Thomas Anshutz, his teacher, and his early works reflect the direct working method of these masters.
In 1902, when he had his first solo exhibition in New York, conservative critics disparaged Henri’s landscape paintings. This criticism, coupled with a recent award at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo for his figure paintings, led him to abandon landscape for portraiture. For models, Henri used his friends and, during the summer months, the residents of the places he visited on his frequent travels.
Dutch Girl is representative of the many portraits Henri painted during the summers of 1907 and 1910 in Haarlem, The Netherlands. The loose, painterly brushstrokes in Dutch Girl also show Henri's indebtedness to the seventeenth-century Dutch master Hals, whose paintings he had seen there. Henri trained himself to work quickly so he could record a portrait in one sitting. (Henri's record book indicates, however, that Dutch Girl was repainted in May 1913 and again in April 1919.)
Contrary to contemporary academic salon portraits, which favored many props, Henri's models were placed within a dark undefined space in the manner of Velàzquez, whose integrity, dignified treatment, and somber palette Henri greatly admired. Thus, he emphasized the person, concentrating here on the child's face—to him, the embodiment of her spirit.